Muslim Democrats? How to explain shift in Tunisia’s Ennahda


In a move widely reported as a landmark separation of mosque and state, Ennahda announced it was separating politics from preaching, notes Oxford University researcher Monica Marks. It also unveiled plans to rebrand and reboot the party, broadening membership to recruit new voices and perspectives. Western coverage characterized the congress as abruptly separating religion and politics. Inside Ennahda, though, these changes are understood as formalizing long-brewing trends within the party – introducing revisions that tweak, but do not transformatively sever, its relationship to religion, she writes for The Washington Post:

To implement this new vision, Ennahda decided to no longer allow its party leaders to simultaneously hold leadership positions in civil society organizations, including religious associations. Leaders are also now prohibited from preaching in mosques, even informally or occasionally. This means Ennahda leaders with a well-known penchant for preaching – such as Sheiks Sadok Chorou and Habib Ellouze, both reelected to the Shura Council – must either stop proselytizing or give up their elective positions.

One challenge for Ennahda will be to define what a “Muslim democrat” is, The Wall Street Journal adds:

Former Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem, a senior Ennahda member and Mr. Ghannouchi’s son-in-law, told us the party will remain grounded in broadly Islamic values while giving “answers to the needs of society” in areas such as economic development and counterterrorism. Tunisia’s jobless rate is above 15%, according to the World Bank, and the country is the world’s top exporter of recruits for Islamic State.

“There are reasons for caution. Mr. Ghannouchi used to sound more radical notes, though his thinking appears to have evolved over decades of political experience,” the Journal adds. “Some inside the party’s base will balk at shedding their Islamist identity, and the 74-year-old Mr. Ghannouchi must take more steps to institutionalize the transformation. Success would solidify Tunisia’s status as a beacon in the Arab world.”

This policy of pragmatic inclusiveness demonstrates that Ennahda as a whole – not just its comparatively progressive central leadership – has done a significant amount of political learning over the past four years, adds Marks, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a doctoral fellow with the WAFAW program in Aix-en-Provence, France:

Ennadha now faces the tough challenge of creating coalitions that are not just comfortable, but are also concretely constructive, to translate its learning into actual advancements in Tunisia’s fight against terrorism, administrative inefficiency, corruption and youth unemployment.


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